Seven years before Christianna Brand gave us Fog of Doubt/London Particular, we have today’s read which opens on a cold, late, autumn night, with Nurse Nora Deane wondering how she will ever find her way to her latest case, due to all of the dense impenetrable fog. The opening page warns us how useful a fog can be for a criminal, but how will it be used tonight?
The start of Gilbert’s story has many familiar tropes, which lead to the reader quickly assuming where the tale is going to go next. Naturally, none of these assumptions go in the right direction. A mysterious young man offers to direct Nora to the address she is looking for. But is she heading into danger? Nora makes it to the house, but our suspicions are immediately aroused by the un-trustable husband who explains to the nurse that she mustn’t believe anything his wife says. There is the equally suspicious tea episode and then the drastic news that the patient died in the night. But was it a natural death? Did her cryptic message to the nurse mean anything?
Now you might be wondering why I have told you all of this. Surely, I have described the majority of the book. Well that is where you are wrong as all of these events take place in rapid succession in the first 40 odd pages of the book.
Where is Gilbert taking this plot? What fate awaits Nurse Nora? Who is the mysterious stranger from the fog? And how does Arthur Crook get involved?
Unsurprisingly I’m not going to tell you any of those answers. You’re just going to have to read it yourself!
In keeping with other books Gilbert has written, she uses tropes familiar to the reader, but in such a way that the normal consequences or narrative trajectories are avoided, and a new direction is forged. The presence of a nurse and a suspiciously ill wife often make up the whole plot of some mysteries, with much atmosphere and emotional drama evoked, as well as night-time frights. This is the bread and butter of the HIBK subgenre. Nevertheless, in Gilbert’s hands something different is created and this story manages to combine inverted mystery elements within an unconventionally structured detective story. Unlike my last read by Wallace, Gilbert’s book has a high level of activity which does not wear the reader but intrigues them instead.
The title of the tale does make one think of the HIBK subgenre and we do get lines such as: ‘Nothing whispered to her of the peril in which she stood; no inward voice said Get away while you can, while you’re still safe’ and ‘now she was defenceless indeed, like some small creature battering feverishly on the door leading to destruction. But she didn’t know.’ However, the link between the title and plot is fairly minimal, though this is probably not a bad thing.
The drama of the piece does not strike immediately, and the reader almost seems to sit on a bomb, waiting for the narrative to explode and for the peril to engulf the heroine, Nora. This takes place in the final third of the book, when Crook enters the picture. Crook may appear rather later in the books, but you can’t say he does not make up for lost time!
In this type of story you would imagine that Nora’s actions, thoughts and feelings would dominate the text. Yet once more this is not the case, as after the opening chapters, Gilbert starts to move the focus around, which I think added to my enjoyment of the book. A Nora-centric narrative would have forced the plot along more conventional lines. In some ways Nora is true to type as a heroine, as some of her decisions are far from sensible. We also get passages such as this which allude to the more HIBK vein of writing, though in a more self-conscious fashion:
‘Again she remembered the book heroines who drop hairpins in a steady trail from the fatal stairway to the murderer’s lair, or the men in the Chestertonian romance who had spilled soup and broken windows to leave evidence of their passing. Only had one ever really believed those stories? They didn’t happen in real life. Detectives looked for something more subtle than a trail of hairpins, and anyways two plain brown combs and a kirbigrip wouldn’t make much of a show.’
Moreover, whilst we know she is the innocent party; it is interesting to see how events are viewed from characters who do not have the fuller picture. In their eyes she is a much more ambiguous figure. It should also be pointed out that Nora’s poor decision making is only one factor which contributes to her jeopardy, as the irresponsible actions of another patient of hers, arguably contributes much more to her lack of personal safety. I would like to say more about this, but then we would be veering into spoiler territory.
However, I can add that Gilbert uses the mysterious stranger trope very well. Usually you can tell if such a character is good or bad, but Gilbert maintains the suspense over this one for quite some time, to such an extent that the reader starts wandering off in the wrong direction. That said, there is one incidence in which I felt someone ought to have been recognised when they are not. The reader should be able to figure out the solution before the end of this one, as it is not overly complex. Yet I don’t think this happens too quickly, so the reader won’t be feeling bored. Conversely though I think the finale at the hospital could have been written in a more effective way, as it lacked drama.
Nevertheless, this is still a book I would recommend. There is the odd copy available online for under £20 and it was also published under the title Death Lifts the Latch in the US.
See also: John at Pretty Sinister has also reviewed this title. A rare moment where I am able to track down and a read a book that John has also reviewed!